Ethiopia is bisected by the Great Rift Valley, a 6,000km long trough that stretches south from the Red Sea to Mozambique, and ranks as the only terrestrial feature on the planet visible to lunar astronauts. The tectonic drift that created this vast chasm started 20 million years ago, and has been accompanied by regular volcanic activity, which can be seen in the many hot springs, dead craters and live calderas on its floor. Far lower in altitude than the mountains that flank it, the Rift Valley is the most classically African part of Ethiopia, thanks to its warm climate and cover of barbed acacia woodland and open savannah.
The most commonly visited part of the Rift Valley is string of five freshwater and soda lakes running south of Addis Ababa to Hawassa. These include Lake Langano, whose upmarket resorts and swimming beaches make it is a popular weekend retreat from Addis Ababa and great place to break up a longer southern safari. For those seeking a more urban break, Hawassa, fringed by the lake of the same name, is a bustling regional capital offering superb recreational and conference facilities. For history buffs, a local community tourism project offers boat trips to Lake Ziway’s Tullu Guddo Island, where the monastery of Maryam Debre Tsion – established in 842 AD to provide temporary sanctuary to the Ark of the Covenant – houses a library of priceless ancient manuscripts, notably an illuminated 14th century tome vividly portraying 19 saints.
It is the lakes’ birdlife that impresses most. Larder-mouthed pelicans and marabou storks gorge themselves at Ziway’s main boat jetty and Hawassa’s lively fish market; while long-legged jacanas and pygmy geese haunt the lily-covered bays, and parrots and fish eagles that nest in lakeside forests. There is also one of Africa’s great ornithological spectacles in the form of the hundreds of thousands of beautiful pink-hued flamingos that congregate in the shallows of Lake Abijatta.